ISTANBUL, Turkey — It was a usual Monday in the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Yuruyus Yolu Avenue in Istanbul's Bagcilar district – plenty of people, few shoppers, half-empty cafes, and men worried about their future.
Cevdet Tunc, 47, who runs a small electrical goods shop, was among them.
"I don't know what's going to happen in coming years," he said.
Not far from his store, the familiar face of Prime Minister Binali Yildirim looks down from a large banner affixed at a makeshift camp of the governing AK Party.
The run-up to Turkey's referendum that seeks to change the constitution has propelled Kurdish voters to the forefront of the battle for the vote.
At the height of the campaign leading up to Turkey’s historic referendum to decide whether the country will adopt major constitutional changes, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a key stop to get the support of Kurdish voters by visiting mostly Kurdish-populated south-eastern Turkey.
“Diyarbakir is our heart. Those who want to distort this geography and distance its people from us are attempting to take out our heart. Diyarbakir is the seal of Turkey,” Erdogan said during his rally in Diyarbakir – the southeastern city with the largest Kurdish population – just two weeks before the referendum vote.
“As with our common past, our future is also a shared one. God willing, a bright future lies ahead. April 16 will herald a new era for Diyarbakir, and for our country,” he said, referring to the date of the referendum vote.
Kurdish votes are crucial in Turkey’s referendum for the “yes” campaign. If Turkey’s Kurds vote “yes” rather than “no”, it would prove to be a major boost for the "yes" campaign at the polls. But if Kurds overwhelmingly vote against the proposed constitutional changes, it could help the “no” campaign edge past for an unexpected win.
In Turkey’s most recent parliamentary elections, the Kurdish vote has gone largely to two parties. One is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which received a significant share of votes from the south-eastern and eastern provinces. The other party is Turkey’s ruling mainstream conservative Justice and Development Party (AK Party) which was founded by Erdogan in the early 2000s. Erdogan led the party until he became the country’s first popularly elected president in 2015.
As for Tunc, he reflected the ambivalent stance of many Kurds, saying a “yes” or “no” doesn’t matter to him. He suggested that everybody should abstain from voting on the day of the referendum. No one seems to be offering him the solution to his problems, said Tunc, who is from Tatvan, a district of Bitlis, a province in eastern Turkey.
“My problems will not be resolved by either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote,” he said, as music from a HDP “no” campaign booth blared in the background.
While the Kurdish community is widely viewed as a conservative one, the HDP leadership is staunchly secularist and draws at least some ideological inspiration from Abdullah Ocalan, who founded the PKK as a Marxist-Leninist armed organisation in 1974.
Since 1999, Ocalan has been imprisoned in Turkey and his armed group, the PKK, has long been listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, the US, and NATO. Since the PKK began its armed campaign against Turkey more than 30 years ago, the continuous clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK have reportedly cost at least 40,000 lives.
This ideological contradiction has repeatedly been highlighted by the AK Party, in its campaigning among the Kurdish community. The AK Party has a number of Kurdish deputies in its ranks. Erdogan’s wife is originally from Siirt, a predominantly Kurdish eastern province, and the president himself has longstanding connections to that region.
The same paradox has also been touched on by Adil Gur, a well-known pollster, who has successfully predicted the results of most Turkish elections, including the crucial November 1 elections in 2015.
“Through our opinion polls, for many years, we have observed a phenomenon that the most conservative voters in this country are Kurdish voters,” Gur wrote in a recent article. “With the exception of the June 7 elections [in 2015], the AK Party has been the first choice of voters of Kurdish origin has consistently ever since the party’s establishment.”
“In my research, I have observed that a vast majority of conservative Kurdish origin voters will say ‘yes’ on April 16,” Gur argued.
The pollster also highlighted a geographical factor behind the Kurdish “yes” vote.
“According to most research data, approximately 18 percent or 20 percent of voters are of Kurdish origin voters. More than half of them live not in eastern and south-eastern provinces but in [Turkey’s] metropolis, primarily, in the Mediterranean region and Istanbul.”
Gur’s prediction is not in line with most of the other poll results concerning Kurdish votes, yet he makes the argument that his research proved that Kurdish voters swung back to the AK Party in the November 2015 election in the wake of criticisms within their community over the HDP’s ambiguous stance on a renewed wave of PKK attacks since last summer.
Mehdi Eker, a prominent Kurdish AK Party deputy and a former minister, who is also the vice-chairman of the party, made a similar prediction. He points out that most Kurds do not seek separation from Turkey.
“The biggest Kurdish city is Istanbul,” he points out, stressing that the population is strong in the west.
Eker also pointed out that part of the AK Party’s appeal amongst Kurds lies in the fact that they were the most victimised part of Turkey’s society by military coups, and that the current constitution was written under military rule following the 1980 coup.
“As a result, it is pretty normal that Kurds will be the ones who demand to change the coup-produced constitution. [Their victimisation and their demand to change it] are related to each other,” Eker told TRT World.
Fuat Keyman, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Sabanci University and coordinator of the Istanbul Policy Centre, said that he believed the majority of Kurdish voters would vote “no”.
“The AK Party was successful [in wooing Kurdish support at previous polls] not because it was religious but because it was inclusive. It was able to bring what we call shared prosperity,” he said.
He pointed to the fact that most Kurds opposed the July 15 attempted military coup last year, but has felt stigmatised with the recent arrests of key HDP leaders.
The Kurdish population has been “very demoralised after the end of the peace process,” he explained, and is largely upset with both the government and the PKK.
There are also others who note that the HDP disappointed some supporters with its political strategy following its strong performance in the June 7 elections. The party was able to pass Turkey’s ten percent threshold for the first time in that election, winning seats for 80 deputies out of the total 550 members of the Turkish parliament.
“[Following the June election] the HDP co-chairperson talked about ‘leaning their backs’ on terrorist organisations and trench politics,” said Idris Agacanoglu, the head of Ati Youth, an NGO based in Hakkari, an eastern province where the HDP has a strong base.
He was referring to controversial statements Figen Yuksekdag made in July 2015 about the armed group the YPG, which is the PKK’s Syrian wing. The comments partly led to her arrest in November 2016.
“She made public statements with the full of threats. What has actually been going [in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern regions] was obviously contradicted with their ‘peace’ rhetoric,” Agacanoglu told TRT World. “Kurds recognise this [fact].”
Following the June 7 elections in 2015, Turkey’s peace process, which the Turkish government calls the “Resolution Process” and had been announced by Erdogan himself in early 2013, collapsed after PKK relaunched its armed campaign against Turkish security forces in the summer of 2015.
Throughout the clashes, it was revealed that the PKK had made underground tunnels and heavily armed in Turkey’s border cities during the peace process. They also dug trenches in several crucial districts to help them fight against security forces. These acts are viewed by the Turkish government as demonstrating a lack of sincerity towards the peace process.
In late 2009, before the Resolution Process was launched, the AK Party government had declared a “Democratic Opening,” a major political development concerning violence in the eastern and southeastern provinces that came despite opposition from other Turkish political parties.
During the “opening”, the Turkish government took steps to attempt to resolve the Kurdish question not only through security measures but also using peaceful means.
The AK Party moved to remove restrictions on Kurdish linguistic and cultural rights under the framework of a legal programme called the “Human Rights Package.” Private TV channels were allowed to broadcast in Kurdish and other languages. TRT Kurdi, the first national state-run channel to broadcast in Kurdish, was launched in January 2009. The number of security checkpoints in south-eastern and eastern regions was reduced, and universities were allowed to establish institutions and research centres in other languages, including Kurdish.
Yet, Cumali Ovenc, 51, a retiree who is originally from Siirt, is among those with strong doubts about the constitutional change proposal.
“I am Kurdish and will vote ‘no’ in the referendum,” he told TRT World. Ovenc is generally a conservative voter; he is a former member of Welfare Party, a religiously-inspired party of which President Erdogan was a member in the 1990s.
Among the reasons for his "no" vote, he said, is frustration over the lack of progress made to compensate people for property damaged during the clashes between the PKK and security forces. He also said that people living in the border regions are dealing with the spillover from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria more than the rest of the population.
At the same time, everyone interviewed said Turkey’s Kurds do not want a separate country and that they want to live in Turkey in a brotherly manner, in peace and prosperity. They largely expressed hope that the AK Party government would renew the peace process once again, but they appeared confused about what the referendum process as a whole meant for the community.
“I think they [Kurds] will vote ‘no’, but it will not be as overwhelmingly ‘no’ as some expect. They know they were granted more rights under the AK Party government than any other government,” said the municipal police director in Bagcilar, who did not want to be named. She was originally from Giresun, a Black Sea province.
“There is a silence [surrounding the referendum] in the southeastern region,” said a Bagcilar municipal policeman, 39, who also did not want to be named. He is originally from Tokat, another Black Sea province.
Another key concern for many Kurds has been the AK Party’s alliance with the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) during the campaign for a “yes” vote. The MHP, which was outspoken in its opposition to the peace process, has lately become the AK Party’s main ally, lending their influential support to the referendum campaign.
Speaking from the PKK’s mountainous hideout in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, the group's leadership has spoken forcefully against the proposed constitutional changes. They aggressively called on their supporters to vote “no” in the upcoming referendum.
Yet on Thursday, three days before the vote, Erdogan invoked a renewed return to the peace process:
“If you [the PKK] bury your arms along with providing the locations and coordinates [of the buried weapons], just like ETA [the armed group fighting the Spanish government for autonomy of the Basque region] has buried their arms, then there will be steps taken by [the Turkish government]. [After all] this is the process for us. The way ETA acted should be your example.”
Erdogan was referring to last week’s announcement by the Basque armed group that they would lay down their arms after decades of fighting an insurgency against the Spanish authorities.
For Eker, the vice-chairperson of the AK Party, the proposed changes to the referendum would empower the president to tackle the peace process head-on.
“The PKK problem could be resolved if the [Turkish] state has a more streamlined administration [referring to the bid to move to a presidential system],” Eker said. “Unless PKK and terror issues are resolved, it is impossible to talk about other issues.”